I woke to the sun in my eyes. I picked a couple of stray pine needles out of the fuzz on my face, pulled off my glasses and sat up, leaning back on one hand and rubbing my eyes with the other before I put them back on. Something had waked me. I couldn’t place it, couldn’t see it, couldn’t even feel anything but the normal dizziness. I lay back down and stretched, then slowly climbed to my feet, leaning on the stump for support.
Down in the valley, nothing had changed. Or, nothing had changed back. Everything seemed so ordinary, and yet so un-ordinary. I felt like Rip van Winkle.
The shadows moved across my face, the sun blinding me momentarily before it moved on, half a hundred times. Old Faithful, living up to its name, erupted, once, twice, three times? I wasn’t keeping count.
The sun had moved far enough to quit flashing in my eyes as it shifted when I heard the sounds. Thin and wispy, at first I thought my senses were playing tricks on me again. Then I thought, birds? Squirrels? The sound of a neigh brought me bolt upright, then to my feet. I stood, swaying.
A trail of dust, like it had been thrown up behind a car on a dirt road, lofting into the sky behind what? I couldn’t see for the thicket of trees. I grabbed my stick and plunged headlong down the hill.
Three steps and I was bounding, two more, and nothing could have slowed me down. Three bounds after that, my foot caught on a branch, and I went sprawling. I hauled myself up, swiped the blood from my streaming nose on my shirtsleeve, and ran on.
The slope leveled out not much farther on. Springs and pools and bare ground signaling thin crust were everywhere. I stopped a moment to wipe my bloody nose again, and to breathe while I looked for the dust trail. It was gone.
I landed on the ground with a hollow thump. It told me maybe I shouldn’t be sitting on that spot, but I didn’t much care.
I shook myself. Had I imagined the dust cloud, too? My nose finally stopped bleeding, although it ached like a son of a gun. I fell back against the hard ground and shivered, trying to think. It took all my effort, not only mentally, but physically.
It was then it hit me. If all this was a hallucination, it wasn’t going to be any good to go looking for that dust. If I wasn’t hallucinating, then I wasn’t where I thought I was in the first place. Screwed both ways.
But if this was real, what happened? And if this wasn’t real, where was I and how did I get back out of this rabbit hole?
Questions chased themselves around in my brain like a dog chases its tail. I had way too many of them, and not a single answer to be found, anywhere, at any price.
It was then I began to hear the voices.
I went stock still and strained my ears. Yes, voices, drifting in on the breeze, faint, but unmistakably human.
I couldn’t make out the words. Men’s voices, baritone and tenor, and one shrill soprano. They gradually got louder, then one of the geysers went off, and I couldn’t hear anything for a few minutes. I wondered if they’d still be there.
A woman’s voice, the words suddenly as clear as if she were declaiming onstage. “She’s just a little girl, William. You’re too hard on her.”
My head jerked up. That had to be real.
The deep-voiced man was speaking again. I homed in on the sound, and began to walk. Fast. Well, run, actually. Carefully. Sort of.
Who am I fooling? Those were the first human voices I’d heard in I don’t know how many days. I stumbled, legs wobbly, head spinning, across the meadow towards them.